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How To Win At Wine Tasting

By Staff in Food on May 15, 2014 8:30PM

Wine tasting- it's not as scary as it looks. (Shutterstock)

The best way to learn about wine is to, quite simply, taste more wine. And there's no better place to taste a wide range of wines than at a wine tasting. Here you can try a variety of wines all in one spot and ask questions about the wines from some very knowledgeable people like distributors, or occasionally even the winemaker.

There are many wine tastings where you can taste bunches (PUN!) of wines. This allows you to really compare various wines in order to find out which wines you like. And the good news is, you don't need to be a Master Sommelier to attend these tastings. In fact, tastings are often geared toward people with little wine knowledge. Sure, you'll run into the occasional wine snob who just wants to prove how much more she knows than anybody else, but just ignore these blowhards. There are plenty of friendly folks at these events who love to share what they know about wine with people who are just getting into it.

Don’t be intimidated: Just like beer or cocktails, you should be able to have fun with it. I mean, it's just fermented grape juice after all.

Think when you drink: To make the most out of your wine tasting experience you don't just want to throw back each taste and say whether you liked it or not. You need to think a little deeper than that if you want to get to the point where you're more comfortable talking about wine.

Give the wine a sniff: To smell the wine give it a swirl. There's no need to go crazy spinning the glass around—all you're doing is getting the aroma of the wine to head in an upward direction toward your nose. Then simply bring the glass up to your nose and give it a sniff. What does it smell like? Fruit? Flowers? Wood? There is no wrong answer here. What it smells like to you is what it smells like. Just keep your observations basic, unless some specific aroma jumps out at you and is super obvious. Smell is also one of the first hints telling you how the wine might taste.

Feel it: Put just a little bit of the wine into your mouth and taste it. How does the wine feel on your palate? Is it light and refreshing or is it cloying and heavy? This is what is referred to as the body of the wine. It's kind of like the difference between eating fresh strawberries and having strawberry jam. One is light and the other is heavy.

Evaluate sweetness: Don't mix up sweetness with fruitiness. A wine can be very fruity, yet dry at the same time. Through tasting, you'll learn the difference and figure out what you prefer.

Are there tannins?: Tannins are the part of wine that can give you that astringent, almost drying feel in your mouth, kind of like over-steeped tea does.

What does the wine taste like to you?: And, most importantly, do you like it? Is the wine fruity, herbal, floral or earthy? Again, keep your descriptions basic unless some specific flavor really knocks you over the head.

Don’t be afraid to spit: At a wine tasting it's considered acceptable to spit rather than drink the wine you taste. You'll often see buckets on the tables at wine tastings. These are where you spit your wine out or dump untasted portions. The reason for all of the spitting is not because the wine isn't tasty, but rather to avoid getting drunk, which will inhibit your ability to actually taste more wines.

Don’t be afraid to slurp either: You'll also likely hear a lot of slurping from other people at the tasting. While your mother might frown upon this at Sunday dinner, at a wine tasting it's perfectly acceptable. The reason for the slurping is that by drawing a little bit of wine back over your tongue along with some air, it helps you taste the wine better. So go ahead and slurp. Trust me, it works.

Learn about the wine’s story: One of the great things about wine is that it has to do with geography, place and history, and there's almost always a great story behind each bottle. While attending a tasting, take the time to learn the story about a wine you enjoy. It's a lot of fun.

Different Types Of Tastings

YEA! FREE WINE!: Wine shops, liquor stores or even grocery stores will occasionally have distributors in, pouring a few wines from their portfolios. This is the perfect place to taste a couple of wines in a relaxed environment and to ask questions about them.

Taking it a little more seriously: Next are tastings at wine shops that might be a little more formal, not in the stuffy sense, but in the fact that you sit down and taste wines that are chosen around a particular region or grape, and you learn a little more about whatever the topic is.

The Big Shindig: There are many big event wine tastings, often held in places like the Field Museum, where you can literally choose from hundreds of wines to taste in a festive, social atmosphere. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to taste them all! These events are often fun, but not always the best venues for really trying to learn what you like, because there are only so many wines that you can actually taste, particularly if you're drinking and not spitting. Fun? Sure. But if you're really thinking about attending the tasting to learn, then there's probably a maximum number of wines you should taste in a sitting. Don't try to taste them all.

Throw your own: Craig Perman, owner of Perman Wines at 802 W Washington Blvd, has put together a program that allows you to throw your own tasting for around $60. It's called “6 for Sixty Something.” For that price, customers get 6 bottles of wine, which Perman selects and changes monthly, and tasting notes. According to Perman, “What I like to tell people is, there's a tasting in itself. You have the tasting notes. Invite a bunch of friends over, and just open up all six bottles and just taste.”

A great resource to find out where and when wine tastings are being held is the website It's a one-stop information center for a wide range of local food and wine events.

What wine tasting really boils down to is: have fun, learn a little and figure out what kind of wine you enjoy. Then, next time you're at a restaurant that has a good wine program, you won't feel quite so intimidated by that big wine list and will be able to order with confidence.

By John Lenart